Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Kurwenal in Toronto

Tonight is the opening night of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. I’m very excited to open this run of a very interesting and quite extraordinary production. I blogged about my feelings concerning this particular opera way back on July 27, 2011. That entry can be found in the archives of this journal. The opera can have such an incredible impact on the audience. Feelings about the piece can vary greatly from listener to listener. But much depends on how the opera is presented and how well the director, conductor, singers, orchestra, and production staff pull it off. Of course, this could be said of many operas, but, I think, in a music drama like “T&I”, it’s even more so the case. I have sung this opera often in the past 13 years. My first crack at Kurwenal was in Chicago in 2000. Since the, I have gone on to sing the role in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Munich, and Bilbao. Every production has been incredibly different. But it was the “production” in L.A. that has the most to do with what we are doing here in Toronto.

Back in late 2004, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with the genius director, Peter Sellars and the videographer, Bill Viola, began “The Tristan Project”. I was so happy to be a part of the cast when this debuted at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. In that series of concerts, we performed over three nights (one act each night) this opera accompanied by other relatable music to the Tristan saga. Incorporated into these concerts was unbelievably striking video shot by Mr. Viola. Singers were stationed around the auditorium in various places. Augmented brass players were high in balconies as was the chorus. Audience members sat riveted as they were sounded by sound and viewed the incredible visual images. We had minimal costumes and the lighting was kept low to enhance the video. I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a “production” that was more focused and illuminating to the inner attitudes of one’s mind.

Over the years, the project moved into opera houses. While keeping the videos themselves, more developed costumes were added. As there was more space for the singers with the orchestra now in the pit rather than onstage, more acting could be applied amongst small areas of light. I wasn’t involved in these performances in Paris (although I watched the production from the side of the stage when I was performing in another work), Tokyo, or New York. The various locales used numerous other singers who all gave what they could to this unique presentation. However, I’m thrilled to now be back with the project and am moved to see how it has grown and developed over the years. Some productions of various operas travel from locale to locale but don’t always hold together the intent of the director or even resemble, other than via the sets, the original intent. This one does--and more so.

There is far more character development here in Toronto than I remember from the earlier presentations. The lighting, although in some ways constraining, allows us to focus even more on each character. I am having to perform, in act 3, in a manner that is totally different than I ever have before. In stillness, there can be wonderful drama and I’ve enjoyed finding this out even more in this rehearsal period. Everything comes together to create an extraordinary experience. The audience at the final dress rehearsal was greatly moved by what they witnessed---you can’t just say what they “saw” or what they “heard”---it’s both. Perhaps it would be better to say “what they sensed”. It’s that kind of experience.

And what an ensemble we have here in Toronto! I am pleased to be working again with Peter Sellars. It is a joy to work with Maestro Debus. The orchestra is fantastic. The hall is simply one of the best anywhere---visually and acoustically gorgeous. After being here last spring for the double bill, I have come to appreciate the great production team as well. And the singers---how great to work with so many friends who are singing so wonderfully. This is a very warm treat in a very chilly time of year here in Toronto. I’m so pleased to be a part of this ongoing production. This production breathes and develops. It’ll be exciting to see how it continues to grow.